When Abraham tried to offer up Ishmael to God as the son of promise, God told him no (Genesis 17:18-19, AMP). Contrary to what some would have us believe, God does not always say yes in response to our prayers and offerings. This is difficult for some of us to understand because we have been made to believe that we can manipulate God into doing whatever we want. However, God is not our cosmic butler waiting in the wings to do our biddings. He is the sovereign God, creator of the universe, and as Abraham found out, He sets the standard for what is acceptable to Him.
It is human tendency to tell or ask of God what we want or need from Him. We are not in the habit of asking Him what does He requires of us. If He sets the standards for everything, one of the main purposes of prayer is to find out what is important to Him so we can align our goals and our lives accordingly. Our frustration with what we consider unanswered prayers are often due to our refusal to understand this important truth. We cannot try to fit God into our plans and our agendas; to act contrary to His expressed will and then ask Him to bless our efforts and the results. This was what Abraham tried to do and though God did bless Ishmael (v. 20), He did so only because of His grace and mercy. He was not obligated to and He made it clear to Abraham that though He chose to bless Ishmael, he was not the son of promise (v. 21). Hagar, Sarah’s maid and the mother of Ishmael, also earlier experienced this grace and mercy when she “called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are God Who Sees’; for she said, ‘Have I not even here [in the wilderness] remained alive after seeing Him [who sees me with understanding and compassion]?'” (Genesis 16:13).
While it is comforting to know that we serve a God who sees all of us with “understanding and compassion,” it simply means He does not always give us what we deserve – His justice. He is faithful even when we are unfaithful; He keeps His promises to us long after we have broken ours to Him. But this does not give us the right to keep abusing this grace. The apostle Paul challenged the Roman church with the provoking question, “What shall we say [to all this]? Should we continue in sin and practice sin as a habit so that [God’s gift of] grace may increase and overflow?” before answering his own question with an emphatic, “Certainly not! How can we, the very ones who died to sin, continue to live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2). Because the truths of Scripture transcend time and cultures, Paul also speaks to and challenges us today.
It is the obligation of every believer to align our plans and our lives to the will of God. Like Abraham and so many others, we continue to find out that this is not always easy. While His mercies are new every morning and His faithfulness is great, it is important that we are not complacent but that we strive to do His will instead of trying to get Him to settle for ours. Let us start with what He requires of us in His Word. As John reminds us, “This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us. And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 John 5:14-15). His plans, His ways, His will; they are all that really matter.